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Books | Sports

February 28, 2011

Before Lombardi Was Lombardi

John Eisenberg revisits the coaching legend's first season in Green Bay, when he was a mere coach, and one with flaws.

Evan Hilbert

There are certain well-established facets of Vince Lombardi's career. His never-say-die approach to coaching spawned a flurry of inspirational quotes, and his hard-nosed, tough-guy attitude brought out the best in his players.

John Eisenberg.
"That was my goal—to make him as human as possible."

John Eisenberg.

But there was another side to Lombardi, and John Eisenberg unearths this alter ego in That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory, an in-depth look at the trying inaugural 1959 season in which Lombardi took over the woeful Green Bay Packers. Lombardi proves to have been a manipulator, a man who could get out of you what he wanted, whether you liked it or not. And he did it not only through aggression, but also by bending the rules for certain players and treating some guys differently than he treated others. Lombardi, in his first year as head coach of any team, was saddled with a team filled with players used to losing. His job was to change the atmosphere in Green Bay, and in so doing, he became perhaps the most influential coach in history.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, Eisenberg tells Gelf why it'd be so tough to replicate Lombardi's feat today, what the great coach's biggest oversight was, and how the coach had a softer side, and put it to shrewd use.

Gelf Magazine: What was your goal in writing this book? What did you want to get across to people, and did you write it for a specific audience or for the general football fan?

John Eisenberg: Definitely for the general football fan. Vince Lombardi was a legendary figure, an icon, and there's a statue of him in front of Lambeau Field. Everyone knows his name, for obvious reasons.
My whole goal was to tear that down and make him a human—make him flesh-and-blood. I started interviewing people for this, and none of these guys saw him as an icon or a legend. He cussed them out! He was hard on them, and they hated him, to a degree. So my whole goal was to get that across, to realize that this was a guy who made mistakes, that this was a guy who was human—and, in doing that, emphasize what made him such a good coach and such a success.
I felt that there was a story to be told. I am a great fan of David Maraniss's biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered; it's one of the best sports books I have ever read. If he would have spent more time on the first year, I wouldn't have been able to write this book. I did feel, after I read it, that there was room to explore the football side of things. So much happened there that was so important—it set the table for everything. They were so bad, and to go from so bad to turn it around immediately is pretty amazing. I wanted to go through that year when everything changed and go through the good, the bad, everything—when he himself was far from an icon; he was a first-year coach and a little desperate in his own right. I wanted to bring that out. That was my goal—to make him as human as possible.

Gelf Magazine: What was his biggest flaw—either one that exhibited itself in that first year, or in general?

John Eisenberg: He had a terrible temper. Was that a flaw? I don't know. There are people who say that there was no difference between the Packers and Cowboys in those days, just that Lombardi was better at motivating his players than Landry was, which may be true. I am a born-and-raised Cowboys fan, so that is hard for me to admit, but it could well be. Nonetheless, it made him virtually impossible to deal with. All these guys that I interviewed, they just said he was almost impossible to deal with. Wonderful, but also impossible. He had a terrible temper and could turn on you, which was great but also difficult.

Gelf Magazine: Could this type of turnaround happen in the more-modern era? Has it occurred? Or do egos get in the way?

John Eisenberg: Football is so different now, it's really apples-and-oranges. There's so much off-the-field maneuvering that goes on. Lombardi basically took the same set of players and took them from losers to winners. Today, there would be a general manager in place to change the composition of the team. There is so much more player movement. In that sense, it's almost impossible to re-create it. Plus, the NFL today is set up for turnarounds like this. They happen all the time. I mean, the Kansas City Chiefs made the playoffs this year and they were 4-12 a year ago. There's a new GM, a new coach, and a new set of players, and it happened in two years. It happened in Baltimore when I covered the Ravens. In 2008, they were 5-11, and the next year they were in the AFC Championship game with a new coach.

Gelf Magazine: Did John Harbaugh really come in and light a fire with the Ravens?

John Eisenberg: He definitely had an impact. He had a major impact and a new quarterback. The fall that I was writing this book was the fall when they were doing that. I began to think that it was eerie. You can't compare John Harbaugh to Vince Lombardi, but it was a very similar story. Here I was writing one story in the mornings, and then I'd go cover the team and think, "This is really similar." They were a losing team, with a lot of the same players, and a new coach comes in and lays down the law.

Gelf Magazine: How similar was Lombardi to the tough-guy, Bear Bryant-types that were prevalent in the college game—the do-it-my-way-or-you're-gone type of attitude?

John Eisenberg: He was very similar to them. The college game then was full of guys like that. Tough guys that had been around—they were institutions. They had been there forever, and Bear Bryant was the best example. Lombardi was very similar to them.

Gelf Magazine: Was it surprising that that approach worked so well in the NFL at that time?

John Eisenberg: It was really surprising that it worked in the NFL. The NFL in the '50s was the Wild West. It was a bunch of tough guys, half of whom had been in World War II. They were tough guys who didn't make any money, so you couldn't really tell them what to do. You couldn't tell Bobby Layne what to do. He was going to get drunk on Saturday night and beat you on Sunday. It wasn't a situation where there was tight control over the players.
Paul Brown really had a strong influence with players under his thumb. He was like Landry, though. They were really smart, so they did it that way. Lombardi was the one who brought in the will and scared them to death. He just showed them that they could keep losing, or come his way and win. Some players didn't care enough—they weren't getting paid enough to do it. That was his great triumph, to get them all to get on board with him when they weren't making any money.

Gelf Magazine: What were you most surprised to learn about Lombardi?

John Eisenberg: The most surprising thing I learned in researching this book, by far, was the early arc of Bart Starr's career. He was terrible. He didn't win a game for three years. I didn't know he was that bad. When I went and interviewed one of his teammates whom I think should remain nameless, I had mentioned that I had just spent a day with Bart, and he said, "Oh, did he tell you how bad he was?" So that really surprised me.
I guess what else surprised me a little bit was that Lombardi missed on some things. I said my goal was to make him human, and he did not see Bart Starr's coming out at first glance. Starr was third-string. Lombardi put two quarterbacks ahead of him, so he got that wrong. He got that really wrong. Bart Starr didn't leap off the page to Lombardi at all in the beginning. There was thought of cutting him, and that surprised me a lot.

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi. Copyright Vernon J. Biever.

Gelf Magazine: Did Lombardi lack that eye for talent and potential? Why was he so down on Starr but high on Paul Hornung, who struggled before his arrival also?

John Eisenberg: Starr was not a physical star. His skills were really subtle. He was average size, had sloping shoulders, and didn't have a big arm. The guy who beat him out, Lamar McHan, whom Lombardi traded for, was a much bigger name. He had had a much bigger career to that point. Starr had nothing going for him. There was nothing to recommend Bart Starr.
On a large scale, Lombardi did some really good things building that defense over the years. He wasn't a great drafter—that wasn't his strength. He was a much better coach than administrator.

Gelf Magazine: What would be his greatest attribute, perhaps aside from what everyone already thinks of him?

John Eisenberg: Maybe a surprise would be the soft side that he has. He was a master psychologist and it wasn't just, "My way or the highway" or "Win at all costs!"
Jerry Kramer told me a story about how Lombardi dressed him down in practice, called him a cow, said he was terrible, and the worst guard in the league. Kramer's just so disconsolate afterwards, wondering how long he's going to have a career. Then Lombardi comes to him after, sits down, and says, "You really have incredible potential and I'm pushing you because one of these days, you're going to be the best guard in the league."
So there was a science to it. It wasn't just yelling. Lombardi broke one of the great theorems of coaching because he treated every player differently. Lombardi let Hornung get away with stuff that he would never let someone else get away with. He knew what buttons to push to motivate different people and he was willing to bend his own rules to motivate players. He broke some real basic tenets to succeed.

Evan Hilbert

Evan Hilbert is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Article by Evan Hilbert

Evan Hilbert is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky.

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